New buyer wants to freeze whole fish fast
The Bristol Bay fishery has been evolving in fits and starts since its inception in the 1880s. From fish wheels to sail boats, from canneries to fillet lines, the industry is constantly searching for the most efficient way to tackle the massive volume and supply of today's sought-after product.
In 1999, Leader Creek Fisheries revolutionized Bristol Bay's quality standards with an all-refrigerated fleet, and four years ago Silver Bay Seafoods revolutionized the Bay's volume freezing. Most of the other big seafood companies have followed their success, and now hardly any Bristol Bay catch goes into cans.
Alaska's largest sockeye fishery is stumbling its way to a point where quality is more valuable than volume. Within a few years, Bristol Bay fishermen will have very few markets to sell non-chilled deliveries to. But upgrades to onboard refrigerated systems are not yet worth the $40-$50,000 cost for some skippers, and there's not always enough ice available during the peak of the season.
Into that gap comes Northline Seafoods for 2018. Like many small buyers before it, Northline has a new scheme in mind, and hopes to bring on a few fishermen willing to give it a try. The fishermen produce tons of ice for their fleet, then flash freeze the delivered catch whole, all from a floating barge that may need less than two dozen employees to operate.
Ben Blakey is the president of Northline and is no stranger to Bristol Bay's fishery or its challenges. He came up in the Snopac family that processed up to a million pounds a day at Wood River and on the M/V Snopac Innovator (now the Gordon Jensen, after Snopac sold to Icicle Seafoods in 2012).
"I grew up spending summers in Bristol Bay working with my family's former company," Blakey said. He worked on the processing side until he was 18 or 19, then bought a boat and started fishing in the early 2000s.
"I fished up until 2015, when I took a hiatus to build Northline Seafoods."
He and partner Pat Glaab share a vision for how to better freeze fish quickly, and found an old 150' logging barge they converted into an ice-making, salmon-freezing floating processor.
Rob Woolsey, the news director at KCAW Raven Radio in Sitka, tracked the pair down last summer to check in on their progress. He described Glaab as a "self-taught engineer, and one of Alaska's most prolific seafood plant builders. He met Blakey after he built the Leader Creek plant. He also built the Silver Bay Seafoods plant in Naknek — and its plant across the harbor here in Sitka. This barge is actually his 11th processor."
Northline bought fish in Southeast in 2016, freezing about 70,000 pounds, according to Blakey. They bought again in 2017 on the new barge, and continued to fine tune operations ahead of next summer's Bristol Bay debut.
"What we've really been focusing on is how to freeze a round fish properly," Blakey said. "That is, minimize the labor input and try to freeze it as quickly as you can, as shortly after it's caught as you can."
If anybody else is freezing Bristol Bay catch in the round (whole, un-gutted), they are not advertising it well. Most salmon are now filleted or headed-and-gutted, and the unused portions are ground up and deposited back into the water. This year, a report co-authored by UAA's Angie Zheng highlighted the growing market for salmon heads, skins and bones in China, where the overall demand for wild seafood is growing, too.
"For fish head and bones, usually we cook it in soups, and Chinese consider those soups as very healthy soups, and for the skins sometimes people do the skin salad," Zheng told KDLG last summer. The report found that heads were selling for up to $4.99/lb, skins for $2.46/lb and bones for $5.10/lb.
Blakey did not specify exactly where Northline salmon will be shipped, but he does believe his markets want more than just the filleted or headed-and-gutted fish.
"Like the heads, there's plenty of use for the entire fish downstream," he said. "A major component of what we're working on is how we get the most utilization out of Bristol Bay salmon. We've had good luck maintaining roe quality with frozen in round form."
Unlike floating processors that cut fish, the Northline barge will focus on freezing only, meaning fewer workers and fewer permits will be needed for the operation. Drift boats can pull alongside the barge to offload, and the vessel will produce an estimated 90 tons of ice per day for the fleet.
"The housing is suspended over the deck, so we have a large, flat area to work with. Essentially our platform is one giant freezer that just produces a lot of ice and freezes a lot of fish. Perhaps most importantly it has space for buying stations," Blakey said. For now, he is not planning to use tenders, and will need to find fishermen who are willing to deliver to Clark's Point.
Bristol Bay may be as challenging a fishery as exists, and it has chewed up and spit out many small, rookie buyers. This year, the Akutan aimed to buy from a small fleet and freeze the salmon onboard. The vessel arrived weeks late and out of cash; everyone lost money and the 100,000-plus pounds of processed sockeye ended up in the dump. In 2014, Extreme Seafoods made an attempt at coupling fish-buying with reality TV. They also failed after one season, had to trash a whole tender load of fish, and liens and lawsuits were required to pay some of the fishermen who had given the company a chance.
The Bay has a long history of flops - big and small - but Blakey and Glaab believe Northline will not be listed among them.
"We're not rushing into this. We came up with this idea nearly three years ago, and we've been crossing t's and dotting i's both with markets and our technology ever since. It took us a while to find a platform that will work and also to raise the appropriate funds, and I'm confident that we'll be able to deliver and provide a good market to a few boats."
Northline was originally planning to buy in Ugashik, but decided recently that it would be easier to operate in the Nushagak, where they were going to offer a market and ice in the fall anyway. Blakey will be in Dillingham to meet with interested skippers next Monday, Nov. 13. Catch Northline's presentation at the Bristol Bay Inn at 6 p.m.; doors open an hour prior.